On the morning of Jan. 28, along Northeast Union Hill Road Northeast in Redmond, more than a dozen nurses and caregivers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Swedish Redmond campus.
They held up purple signs reading “United For Our Patients.” At one point, one man called out, “When I say ‘fix,’ you say staffing! Fix!” And in response, the group shouted back, “Staffing!” They went through several rounds of this call and response.
Other chants included, “We’re here! We’re strong! We’ll fight for patients all day long!”
The three-day strike began Tuesday morning and includes nearly 8,000 nurses and caregivers (including nursing assistants, techs, lab workers, dietary workers, environmental service technicians, clerks, social workers and others) from seven Swedish-Providence locations in Western Washington. In addition to Redmond, the other six Swedish locations that had picket lines were First Hill, Cherry Hill, Ballard, Issaquah and Edmonds as well as the ambulatory care center in Mill Creek.
Those 8,000 were joined by more than 13,000 strikers at 13 Providence locations across the state.
Strikers have been proposing “urgent solutions to improve patient care and jobs” to Swedish-Providence for more than nine months, according to a press release by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199NW, the local union representing workers in the states of Washington and Montana.
“We’re here for safe patient staffing,” said Linda Parker, a member of the SEIU 1199NW bargaining team.
In Redmond, the emergency department closed at about 8:15 p.m. Jan. 27 in preparation for the strike. The department is set to remain closed until 8 a.m. Friday, when health care providers are scheduled to return back to work. While the emergency department at Swedish Redmond is closed, the site’s urgent care center as well as some doctors’ offices remain open. Radiology at the location is also closed, so if health care providers need imaging done for patients, they will need to outsource to non-Swedish facilities such as EvergreenHealth or Overlake — both of which have locations in Redmond and throughout the Eastside.
“That’s expensive,” Parker said.
According to the Swedish news blog online, the medical provider temporarily closed two of its emergency departments — Redmond and Ballard. According to a blog post from Jan. 25, prior to the strike: “Swedish has contracted with temporary staffing agencies to bring in qualified, experienced replacement caregivers during the strike, but we are not able to secure enough staff to keep all departments open.”
The post states that to ensure “safe, high-quality care” for patients during this period, the decision was made the evening of Jan. 24 to consolidate some of Swedish’s services.
“Swedish will continue to evaluate our staffing levels to put patient safety first, and will keep the media and the public informed of any future changes in operations that will have an impact on the public,” the post said.
The Reporter reached out to Swedish by phone and email Tuesday, but did not receive an immediate response.
According to another post on the Swedish news blog from Jan. 28, “safe, quality care continues uninterrupted on the first day of a three-day strike.”
“We are deeply grateful that a significant number of represented caregivers made the personal choice to report to work and serve our patients,” the post said. “It is important for our patients, their families and our community to know that they can continue to count on Swedish to provide high-quality, safe and compassionate care during the strike.”
Addressing the emergency department closures in Redmond and Ballard, the post noted that since the strike began, “there have been no patient care incidents related to those closures.”
Parker, who has been a nurse for 34 years and has worked at Swedish Redmond for seven, said their main concerns are focused on Swedish-Providence prioritizing profits and executive pay over patient needs. She said facilities are faced with inadequate staffing and high turnover rates, which has caused severe problems.
According to the SEIU 1199NW, health care workers have seen management shifting priorities since Providence bought Swedish in 2012.
Parker said she has seen the conditions at the Redmond site go downhill since she started, and said Swedish needs to do a better job with more thorough recruiting and retention to bring facilities to better staffing ratios.
“They’re losing 1,000 caregivers a year,” she said.
Parker said Swedish has 900 positions that need to be filled. Of those 900 positions, 600 are in nursing and 50 percent have remained unfilled for more than 60 days.
Without better staffing, she said patients are put at higher risk for things such as falls and being on the receiving end of medical errors — ultimately, patients suffer when staff are not at their best.
In addition to nurses, Parker said they are also in need of environmental service technicians who are responsible for cleaning and disinfecting the hospital. The SEIU reports that 85 percent of these workers are women of color.
And at Swedish Redmond, which serves many patients with mental health issues and those dealing with drug addiction, employee safety is another concern, Parker said. The site does not have any patient safety attendants and only one security guard. Unlike other medical centers such as Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Swedish does not have metal detectors. Parker said nurses have been assaulted at the Redmond location and they have had to call police.
“[Swedish-Providence] needs to step up,” she said.
A need for fair wages
Parker said the strikers want a fair wage package, which would help recruit and retain workers. She said 40 percent of Swedish-Providence employees make less than the necessary salary needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the greater Seattle-Bellevue area.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, it takes an annual income of $62,280 to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the region at fair-market rent, which is $1,557. This comes out to a wage of $29.94 an hour.
According to Dave Bates with SEIU 1199NW, there are 3,000 Swedish employees make less than that, meaning that even when they work full time, they do not make enough to afford the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in the area where they work.
Bates said 308 people work in nutrition services across Swedish and only one person makes $29.94 or more. The average salary is $21.95 and the lowest wage is $15.57.
There are 324 people in environmental services at Swedish and no one makes enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment, Bates said. Bates said the average salary in this department is $20.87 and the lowest wage is $15.55.
For the 3,385 registered nurses at Swedish (with no extra certifications), the average salary is $45.57, and the lowest wage is $24.24, Bates said, adding that this does not include charge nurses.
Parker said the union has presented Swedish-Providence with a number of proposals, but they have all been rejected. In return, Swedish-Providence has presented the union with proposals that would make things worse for staff, she said. Parker said the company offered a wage package that was less than the workers’ last package, calling it “insulting.”
She added that Swedish-Providence had $24 billion in revenue and $11 billion in cash reserves in 2018, and made $970 million in profits in the first three quarters of 2019.
When the strike began Tuesday morning, Parker said some people initially planned to do eight-hour shifts, but the cold and rainy weather may have changed that to four-hour shifts.
And while the Redmond and Mill Creek Swedish locations have picketers from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Parker said the remaining five locations are trying to have picketers 24/7.
The strikers caught the attention of many morning commuters in Redmond on Tuesday morning. Drivers caught in rush hour traffic would occasionally honk their horns in support and at one point, a woman showed up to drop off a case of bottled water for the group.
“To me, it says the community cares,” Parker said, adding that community members are recognizing that the workers are fighting for better care for their patients.